JOHN YANG: From hurricanes to wildfires, natural disasters have drawn the country’s attention away from the political storms in Washington this week.
But rest assured, we will bring you up to speed now with the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.
Gentlemen, welcome to you both.
We had the unusual scene this week of a bipartisan leadership meeting in the Oval Office, and the president cuts off his own treasury secretary as he’s making a recommendation and agrees with the opposition party on this debt ceiling, on a short-term C.R. and Harvey aid.
Michael, what do you make of all this?
MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post: Well, it’s just a massive shift.
It wasn’t that long ago they were talking about putting the wall on the debt relief. And so it’s a huge change. I think that, you know, the art of the deal is easy when you surrender. That book wouldn’t sell very well, but it’s true.
And he signaled surrender, not just on this issue, but somewhat on DACA and somewhat on the whole issue of debt, the debt ceiling, trying to get that out of American politics. So it was a firestorm for Republicans. They’re wondering, is this the new world?
JOHN YANG: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’m not sure it’s the new world, but I am sure that, if I were Mitch McConnell, I would be seething with anger, the Republican Senate leader, because what Donald Trump did to him and to Paul Ryan , the speaker, was cut them off at the knees.
They had to go back to their respective caucuses and tell them, no, they weren’t going to take the position that they in fact had endorsed and told them they were going to take on the debt ceiling and the continuing spending resolution, but, in fact, they were going to follow the advice embraced by the president of Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Well, .
So, if you’re McConnell, just taking it from his perspective, he’s trying to hold on to a Senate majority going into headwinds of 2018, which doesn’t look like a good Republican year, and he’s got a president who is not helping him in that sense. He’s got to have something he can point to that the Senate has accomplished.
The last, best hope, or only hope, actually, is probably tax cuts for their supporters and their admirers. And without the president, he can’t do that. And so he has to bite his tongue, bite his lip, and any other part of his facial extremity that he can and swallow hard, because he just — he was really diminished by this.
MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, I think we Republican leaders look pathetic, though, in a certain way.
They were livid, according to the reporting, on that three-month debt increase. They weren’t livid on nativism. They weren’t livid on misogyny. They were not livid on serial lying.
I think that it makes them look like they have kind of a moral center problem, that this is what the final straw is, is a difficulty. Also, they have given a lot. They have given their standing. They have given their — almost their political character for nothing so far.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree.
MICHAEL GERSON: I mean, they have literally gotten nothing. And tax reform may not even happen, and if it happens, it might be a scaled-back version.
So they have give an whole lot for very little in return.
MARK SHIELDS: You’re absolutely right, Michael.
But I would just add that that one picture that came out of that meeting of Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer each with their hands on the other’s lapels and shoulder, you could almost see them — kind of Trump was in his element, trash-talking to Schumer. And I knew you. You were from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, and Schumer to him saying something like, Donald, you’re from Jamaica, Queens. Who are you kidding?
And it’s not a continuing relationship, but there’s a chemistry there that isn’t present with either McConnell or Ryan. Ryan is a choir boy to Donald Trump. He’s a darling of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. He’s never had a relationship with McConnell.
I agree, but — I agree with what Michael’s point is. What were the words of Charlie Sykes, the Republican talk show host from Wisconsin who’s a friend of Paul Ryan’s? He said, quoting “A Man for All Seasons,” Paul, you know, for whales, you have traded your soul, but for a tax cut, you have traded your soul.
And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
MICHAEL GERSON: He’s a diminished figure.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.
JOHN YANG: Chuck Schumer, who he called the chief clown, and is now…
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, exactly, exactly.
JOHN YANG: And Mitch McConnell — the president invited the Cabinet and their spouses up to Camp David this weekend. One Cabinet spouse who declined, Mitch McConnell.
And how much was a shot across the bow at the Democratic — at the Republican leader — sorry — and was it his intent to diminish them? And how much of this was situational? He saw a deal he could take with the Democrats, and so he took it?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s always the latter with him.
And what was really remarkable was, he was delighted, was the president, in getting favorable reviews in the press that he hates, that he diminishes, that he denigrates on a regular basis, The New York Times, The Washington Post.
And so thrilled was he, he actually called Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to bask in it and tell them the good reviews they were getting.
I mean, no, this is not a matter of strategy or conviction. It’s a matter of…
MICHAEL GERSON: It’s not a violation of his convictions. I’m not sure he has any.
He has a set of instincts, which are nativist and nationalist. But I don’t think he has a set of economic and political philosophic conventions on spending or a lot of other issues. So, when he makes this kind of turn, I think it’s relatively easy for him.
JOHN YANG: Do you think we are going to see more of it?
MICHAEL GERSON: I think that he likes basking in this success.
But you can’t underestimate these Democratic leaders would impeach him with the drop of a hat. They’re not allies. They want higher taxes, not lower taxes. So I think that there are some fundamental conflicts of interest here that emerge very quickly.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, they don’t want — Democrats are not on record favoring tax cuts to Steve Schwarzman and other sort of billionaires who back Donald Trump or Wilbur Ross.
But, no, I think both Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are pretty clear-eyed people, and they know that there are no permanent alliances here. I mean, it’s a matter of temporary interest, and plus the fact they can’t get too cozy with him for a simple reason. He is the energizer for 2018 for the Democrats if they hope to win back the House and maybe even make a dent in the Senate.
JOHN YANG: Well, one of the issues that he appears to be talking to the Democrats, or talking about working with the Democrats on, is what to do about the dreamers.
He rescinded DACA earlier in the week. But, by the end of the week, he seemed to be arguing with himself about whether this was a good thing to do.
MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree.
I mean, the strength of Donald Trump as a candidate — and I’m not in any way defending moral convictions or anything of the sort — was that he says what he means, you know where he stands.
Well, on DACA, you have no idea where he stands. He has a great heart, as he tells us, and then he turns to give the bad news to Jeff Sessions. He wants them to stay. And he says — gives the Congress that hasn’t voted for 16 years to give justice to these folks who were brought here as children six months to do it, and then adds, the fill-up at the end, well, if they don’t do it, then maybe I will have to act myself.
So, I don’t know where he stands. And it must be terrible to live in that suspense.
MICHAEL GERSON: There’s a pretty obvious legislative deal here that they could do.
You could do stronger border security, not the wall, but stronger border security, and take care of the status of the dreamers. That would be obvious. But I’m not sure whether he preemptively conceded that this week or not, whether that is now even an option. Does he have the leverage to engage in that kind of deal?
I’m not sure because of the confusion here.
JOHN YANG: You wrote in a column earlier this week about this — on this topic that he felt that executive action was wrong on the dreamers, but he didn’t feel that way when he put in the travel ban on people from mostly Muslim nations.
MICHAEL GERSON: Yes. Yes, this is not a consistent belief in the limits on executive authority. That’s not a Trump-like belief.
It’s a consistent belief that he wants to get the outcomes that he wishes. But that was deeply inconsistent. He wasn’t deferring to the Congress or to others when it came to the travel ban, the early version of the travel ban, which the courts struck down, like some elements of DACA, the extension of DACA, was struck down during the Obama administration.
MARK SHIELDS: The votes are not there in the House to do it. Let’s be very blunt about it, unless Paul Ryan wants to violate the great Republican rule, which is to pass it with Democratic votes. There is not.
Donald Trump wreaked a whirlwind in 2016 by his anti-immigrant rhetoric. So, the Republican Party is far more polarized on this issue than it ever was before. And the Democrats lost a number of people, From Jay Rockefeller, to Max Baucus, to David Pryor — to Mark Pryor, to Mary Landrieu, who voted for it, and have been replaced by people who are opposed.
So I’m not sure that the votes are there to even act, if Paul Ryan decided it was the right thing do.
JOHN YANG: You talk about members of Congress who were turned out by the voters. We’re seeing some members of Congress voluntarily retiring themselves.
Yesterday, Charles Dent of Pennsylvania, moderate Republican, said he’s not going to run for reelection. You have had two others, I think you can fairly say centrist Republicans, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dave Reichert of Washington.
We’re getting into that season where retirements come, because the party’s got to get other candidates to run.
Why do you think — or do you think we’re going to see more moderates, more centrists like these people, centrist Republicans, saying that they just don’t — they’re going to go home?
MICHAEL GERSON: The fundamental reality here is that you have had the ideological sorting of the parties.
The Republican Party has become more conservative. The Democratic Party has become marginally more liberal. There’s almost no overlap in the middle, ideological overlap, in either house of Congress.
That leaves moderates homeless. We have had a hollowing out of the middle in the U.S. Congress. There’s less opportunity for compromise. Dent said that they have taken it to a new level of dysfunction, was his statement, and that he wasn’t having fun anymore.
He also faced a primary challenge, likely primary challenge, which would have been nasty. So I think you make a decision, you know, do I want to go through all this for essentially, you know, a useless outcome?
MARK SHIELDS: So, every member of Congress has at least 250 people in his or her district who wants that seat. To be a member of Congress, obviously, you have to get elected. You have to be good at that business.
And they have an extra olfactory nerve. They can smell the political winds that are blowing. In 2006, when the Democrats did won back the House from the Republicans, twice as many Republicans retired that year as did Democrats. And I think what you’re going to see is a number of Republicans. You have already seen some who are trying to run for governor or statewide office or the Senate, because, you know, it just — it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great year, and not that they themselves — but it is no fun, believe me, to be in the House with the minority.
All the power is with the majority. All the power is with the speaker and the committee chairs. And I think that does affect — I think Michael’s points are valid, but I think it does affect whether you do want to stay.
JOHN YANG: So, you think they’re smelling that the House could be in play?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think there is any question that that is part — what has to be part of the equation, yes.
And, no, right now, you would have to bet that, if it’s going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, if he’s sitting at 33 percent, at 34 percent favorable…
MICHAEL GERSON: If he has a 35 percent base going into this midterm election, I think it’s pretty disastrous.
JOHN YANG: Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you very much.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, John.